Fayla entered the geode-like room at the same time Harry’s escorts were manhandling him out, his ears no doubt ringing from Mollin’s expletives.
She favored him the barest of glances—enough to see the blank set of his face, catch the white noise of his psyche—and then he was gone, followed by Dré Altimus and the Judon she presumed to be Gajor Lok, leaving Fayla and Mariska alone but for their respective protectors.
“Dama Mariska.” Fayla offered the cross-armed salute due the leader of the Black Rose.
“Dama Fayla.” Mariska responded with a short nod. “I am told it is your House I have to thank for the return of Mr. Finn.”
“We only performed our duty.” Fayla dismissed the act as an inconsequential bit of business.
“You did better than you knew,” Mariska said, taking a seat in one of the scoop-backed chairs, where she reclined, the very image of the matriarch at her leisure.
“How so?” At Mariska’s gesture, Fayla also took a seat, while Eineen and Asha followed to stand behind their mistresses.
“By bringing in Mr. Finn, you have also solved a troubling issue.”
“Issue?” Fayla’s brow quirked.
“I speak of the murders plaguing the Black Rose and the Brotherhood.”
“You mean the torture killings,” Fayla murmured, as if catching on. “The ones with the missing—”
“Eyes. Yes.” Mariska a small sound of disgust as she shook her head. “But those killings, horrible as they are, provided a common ground between the Black Rose and Draconis syndicates.” At this point she paused to meet, and hold, Fayla’s gaze. “The cold truth is, were it not for those murders, we would have no treaty, no peace, and far more deaths.”
“So, in a way,” Fayla observed, “we have a serial killer to thank for the ceasefire.”
“Not in a way,” Mariska corrected. “In every way.”
“But, Dama,” Fayla began, her words thoughtful, her expression curious, “how do a series of cartel deaths relate to Harry Finn?”
“First, tell me this.” Mariska leaned forward. “When your people retrieved Finn, was he carrying a briefcase?”
“A briefcase?” Fayla glanced up to Eineen.
“No one reported seeing such a thing,” Eineen replied, following her dama’s lead. “But I can send a team to the area where Finn was discovered—the manufacturing district, near the Nuph docks,” she added for Mariska’s benefit.
“No need.” Mariska’s fingers rose in gentle dissuasion. “The case would add weight to Finn’s guilt, but Neishi’s description of its contents should be sufficient proof that it was he who committed the murders.”
“You mean to sell Harry Finn—an Inter-System Marshal—as a murderer?” Fayla’s said, wearing an expression of disbelief and admiration that wasn’t entirely pretense.
“He wouldn’t be the first lawman in the Known to break his oaths,” Mariska pointed out.
“Granted.” Fayla’s eyes dipped in deference to Mariska’s point. “But Mr. Finn displayed no signs of madness under Eineen’s questioning.”
“What of yours?” Mariska asked, her lips tilted up in a smirk. “Come, Fayla, you will never convince me a ’path of your abilities did not make at least one foray into his thoughts.”
“I scanned deep enough to assure myself he would do no harm in Ankhar,” Fayla lied. “I could attempt a deeper search, if you wish?”
“Your offer is generous, but unnecessary,” Mariska said. “Nor would the Brotherhood accept anything as intangible as a psionic scan as proof.”
No, Fayla thought, only the word of your pet murderess. “They can be quite prosaic,” she agreed.
“Prosaic and vengeful, and possessed of greater numbers than we,” Mariska pointed out. “Were they not, we would not be signing this treaty, nor,” she added, meeting Fayla’s dark eyes, “having this conversation.”
Again, Fayla’s eyes dipped in understanding. “A question, though,” she said, “merely academic, but once Finn is dealt with, how will we explain it when more tortured, one-eyed bodies begin to turn up?”
“You have my assurance,” Mariska said, rising from her chair, forcing Fayla to stand as well, “after tonight, no such bodies will ever be seen again.”
* * *
Ray, with Jessyn on his arm, tuned out his comms—and Fayla’s conversation—to find Sims Al-Kar stalking over.
Aware of the pockets of Draconis and Rasalkan soldiers weaving past them, Ray sent a quick shake of the head to Arrion, who backed away, but not too far.
“Sims,” he said, keeping his voice friendly even as he added, “I’d say it’s nice to see you, but that’d be a lie.”
“You think you’re not happy now,” Sims growled, without even the pretense of civility, “wait until I get you alone—”
“Gentlemen.” Jessyn slid into the conversation. “Not here.” She turned to Sims. “And not now.”
Sims flinched, then eased closer to Jessyn, ignoring the way Ray and Arrion both tensed. “I need to see you,” he said, taking her hand. “To apologize. I never would have agreed to the attack on Finn if I’d known you could be hurt.”
“Your care is noted,” Jessyn replied, easing her hand free to lay on Ray’s arm. “And accepted for its worth.”
Ouch, Ray thought, before stepping in. “I think that was the lady’s way of saying ‘back off.’”
“The lady can speak for herself.” Sims favored him with a sneer. “But while you’re here, maybe you can explain how it is that House Szado just delivered your client for the slaughter? What happened? Did Finn welch on your paycheck?”
“Let’s just say Dama Szado’s recruitment package offered much more attractive health and benefit incentives,” Ray said, drawing Jessyn closer.
This comment earned him the empathic equivalent of a punch to the arm from Jessyn, but it was Sims reaching for what Ray suspected was a shoulder rig that really got Ray’s attention. “That would be a very bad move,” he said quietly.
“Messy,” Sims admitted, “but not necessarily bad.”
“You think the Powers that Be will be happy about a shoot-out at their peace conference?”
“They’d probably consider it part of the floor show.”
“Perhaps they would be amused, but I would not,” Jessyn said, her voice cold enough even Ray felt the chill. “And right here, right now?” Her blue eyes were ice as they turned on Sims, “I am the Power that Is.”
As he watched the blood drain from his rival’s face, Ray almost felt bad for Sims.
“I’m sorry. Jessyn, you know that. You can feel it—”
At the same time, through his comms, Ray heard Mariska explaining, in detail, how Harry was going to take the fall for Neishi’s crimes.
“I believe I have heard enough,” Jessyn said, slicing through Sims’s pleas and her aunt’s plots as she angled away from Sims. “Leave us. Now.”
“Now,” she said, sparing him a glance. “Tonight is too important for this—this mucho positioning.”
Macho posing, Ray translated as Sims began to back away.
“You’re a lucky man, Slater,” Sims said before adding, “We’ll talk another time,” to Jessyn. Then he spun on his heel and strode back up the stairs from whence he came.
“That is a man who is not getting the message,” Arrion murmured as he joined the couple.
Ray might have agreed, but they had other problems. The plan may be going to shit, he thought, tapping his mic, but they still had their ace in the hole. “Slater to C&C. What’s the status on Harry?”
/Harry’s on the move and Rizzo is on the grift,/ Mollin replied. /Waiting confirmation of the drop./
* * *
On the other side of the lounge, Rizzo had been waiting for his cue, leaning against the bar, waiting for the mark to emerge from a cave-like room near the waterfall.
He knew who to look for because they’d shown him a picture of a tall, rangy human with shocking blue eyes. They explained he’d be dressed in gray-on-gray clothing, no Draconis or Black Rose badges.
He had expected this to be a simple drop followed by a night of champagne.
Until, a few minutes after settling at the bar, when Mollin had linked Rizzo in with the other comms—and he heard Mariska talking to Harry Finn.
At that point, Rizzo realized this was no ordinary grift and, no lie, it made him a little nervous.
He was a dip, pure and simple.
He picked pockets, ran the odd short con, but this?
This shit was real.
It was on the heels of this revelation that he caught movement from the purple-lit door of the cavern and spied his man.
The mark was cuffed and escorted by two tough-looking Black Rose soldiers.
Watching their progress from the corner of his eye, Rizzo took the glass of hootch the pretty bartender had given him and joined a clump of celebrants huddled between the waterfall and the elevator.
He slid into the amorphous group, smiling, nodding, sipping the drink, just one more body in the crowd.
And when the mark neared the edge of that crowd, Rizzo migrated in his direction.
“Rizzo here. I have eyes on the mark,” Rizzo murmured into his comm. “Can you cut the rest of the feed? I need to focus.”
/Copy that, Rizzo,/ a female voice came back, and suddenly the patter of background conversations disappeared from Rizzo’s head. /Confirm when you’ve made the drop./
“Will do,” Rizzo said as he emerged from the crowd, directly behind the mark and his guards.
He had the needle-thin switchblade in the same hand as his drink, while the magnetic lock pick was tucked under his right cuff.
The Gmell punched the elevator’s call pad while the Rasalkan jerked the mark closer to her side.
Time, Rizzo thought and, judging the distance, tripped over his own feet, falling forward to spill his drink over the front of the Rasalkan guard. He pulled up in a twisting recovery as he exclaimed, “Sorry! Sorry! So sorry!”
Then he caught himself on the Gmell’s pelt, earning a growl and a back-pawed slap to the shoulder. “Still sorry!” he cried, slipping on the spilled liquor. He caught himself on Harry’s left sleeve as he fell onto his ass. “Sorry again,” he said, rolling forward as he met the mark’s quietly amused gaze.
He was about to climb up the mark’s leg to make the second drop when a voice from above interrupted his recovery, “Rizzo? Is that you?”
At the call, the Gmell flicked xer tail again, knocking Rizzo back, where he spied León Enris, leaning on a cane as he squinted down from the second-floor balcony.
Rizzo thought, Shit, and rolled forward again, only to discover that the elevator had arrived, and the mark was already inside.
Ignoring León’s call, Rizzo continued to his feet and slipped into a clump of nearby greenery.
By the time he stepped out of the foliage, he’d reversed the jacket Mr. Degas’s tailor had run up special that afternoon.
Now, instead of a black dress blazer over a white shirt with black rose buttons, he wore a zipped and hooded tunic in red with the Draconis dragon’s head emblazoned on the back. The hood covered his hair, and he added a pair of dark glasses to hide the soft blue of his eyes.
As he crossed the floor, he shortened his stride, hitched up one shoulder, slouched over to the waterfall, and flopped onto an empty bench near the pool.
As soon as his ass hit stone, he activated his comm. “Rizzo here, I made contact.”
/Understood,/ the cool woman’s voice came back before adding, /You’re live on all comms./
“I was able to pass the knife,” Rizzo said, looking down at the magnet gleaming accusingly from its place in his palm, “but not the lock pick.”